Speaking during the Stephen W. Brener Distinguished Lecturer Series, David Marriott, COO-eastern region, the Americas for Marriott International, talked about how his family’s company grew, the keys to its success and where it’s going from here.
NEW YORK—The annual Stephen W. Brener Distinguished Lecturer Series in Hospitality Management at the NYU School of Professional Studies featured an interview with David Marriott, COO-eastern region, the Americas for Marriott International.
David is the son of Bill Marriott, executive chairman of Marriott and grandson of company founder J. Willard Marriott. During an interview conducted by Jonathan Tisch, chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels, David Marriott discussed the continuing integration of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide and about Marriott International entering the all-inclusive segment. Below are edited highlights of their conversation.
Tisch: Marriott (Internationa) is well known for its focus on its people. How do you maintain those values with a company the size of Marriott?
Marriott: “It comes down to having the backs of your people in tough situations. My granddad was always late to meetings because he might be talking with a housekeeper about her personal problems. He cared about each person. At 86, my dad still visits 150 hotels a year, goes right to the kitchen and loading dock and talks to people. I do the same. There is nothing more important than thanking people. We have been criticized for taking the time to do this but what my father is most proud of is the opportunities we have given to people who rise from being a server in a restaurant to a management position.”
Tisch: People always ask who I admire. After my own father, I always mention Bill Marriott. … You are now undertaking a different kind of enormous task—putting Marriott and Starwood together. How is that working?
Marriott: “We have tried to find common ground and commonalities and respect people for what they believe. When you acquire a big company you need to integrate from a cultural standpoint. We look at it through the eyes of our three stakeholders: associates, customers and owners. Even if people didn’t land on their feet with us, we made sure they landed on their feet somewhere. (Marriott President and CEO) Arne Sorenson has been going to Starwood properties and shaking every hand. It’s people integration first and foremost, then systems and leadership integration. We are two years in and there is still work to be done, like moving the loyalty programs onto one platform, which is really complicated. But it’s energizing as well because when there are breakthroughs it creates a positive excitement.”
Tisch: How have you made sure you remain a people-first company?
Marriott: “We aim to be aware of workforce issues and insure that people have a work-life balance. It became apparent to me that event management staff had been under particular stress because of having to work 10 to 12 days without a day off. We came up with alternative work arrangements where they could work from home when they didn’t have groups in house. If you can make their lives easier, it’s motivating to them. It’s one example of why we have such employee loyalty. Our GMs have an average tenure of 25 years.”
Tisch: Marriott has a large presence here in New York City and when your father and architect John Portman decided to develop the 2000-room Marriott Marquis in Times Square, the city was in bad shape. Your father made a huge commitment to the city in 1985, and it was a real risk.
Marriott: “The only hotel we had in New York then was the Essex House, and we didn’t have another hotel as big as the Marquis. It cost half a billion (dollars) to build, and my grandfather thought my father was nuts. He hated debt because of his family history. He and my dad had a lot of spirited conversations about it. In the beginning, cabbies wouldn’t even come to the hotel because they thought it was dangerous, but we (incentivized) them by giving them box lunches. It has definitely paid off, and it has been an honor to be part of the transformation of Times Square.”
Tisch: What worries you big picture in the industry? And what’s next for Marriott?
Marriott: “Finding talent is a concern. Distribution channels are also a concern because it is important to have direct relationships with customers. How do we navigate that complex environment?
“As far as what’s next, we have evolved and continue to do so to meet traveler needs. For example, we now have cruise ships with Ritz-Carlton. The competitive landscape has never been stronger. How do we deal with that? Consolidation is the order of the day. Hyatt recently bought Two Roads, and we will continue to see further consolidation. If you want to sell Loews, give me a call.”
Audience: How do you define luxury?
Marriott: “Luxury has evolved, and it is different than it was 20 years ago. We have owned Ritz-Carlton for over 20 years, and it used to be a requirement that a bellman take your luggage. I travel 150 days a year and don’t want anybody carrying my bag. I have gotten into wrestling matches with bellmen.
“Luxury is about meeting customer needs and being flexible. Our Ritz-Carlton on Central Park used to ooze old-style luxury, but now has a much different feel and style of service delivery. And we continue to evolve. It’s nice to have brands like Edition that are luxurious in much different ways and tailored to the lifestyle luxury component. Moxy is a recent example of a brand that is rated two-star but offers luxury experiences through a great sense of style. We have been eager to get into the all-inclusive segment and have a big effort behind that.”
Audience: How do you handle operations for so many brands?
Marriott: “One important thing is to define a space for reach brand. We think there is a bit of blur between some brands, but we are working to make them unique in style and service so each has a target customer base. We are looking at incubating new brands because we still see gaps out there.”